‘Christmas brain’ can give you long-term health problems, experts warn

Your brain is in overdrive and you are in a state of panic. You still haven’t found the perfect Christmas gift for your partner or finalised how many people are coming over for Christmas lunch.

By this point, your blood pressure is increasing and brain is going haywire.

‘Tis the season to be stressed out.Credit:Shutterstock

Experts are calling this “Christmas brain” to reflect what happens when people are exposed to prolonged stress.

This chronic stress can rewire the brain, keeping blood pressure high all the time, according to Professor Vaughan Macefield, a neurophysiologist at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

If it goes unnoticed and unmanaged, high blood pressure can be bad for the internal organs and lead to long-term heart and hypertension problems.

Pofessor Vaughan Macefield is urging people to be aware of their health this festive season. Credit:Paul Jeffers

“Many people are unaware they have high blood pressure,” Professor Macefield says.

“There are over four million people walking around like a ticking time bomb. High blood pressure is symptom-less, but the strokes and heart attacks it causes are not.”

Professor Macefield was part of a team of researchers who discovered that our brains might be one of the biggest determinants of heart health.

So when you’re exhibiting the physiological symptoms of stress, such as dilated pupils and racing heart, you may be elevating the risks of developing long-term high blood pressure, beyond this festive season.

“There are two groups of people,” Professor Macefield says. “One group will show an increase in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls blood pressure … during either a physical stress such as pain or an emotional pain. And the other group won’t.

“And it turns out that people who do show an increase in blood pressure and heart rate for a simple mental stress … are likely to develop high blood pressure in life.”

For years, Robert Pasqualini couldn’t figure out what was contributing to his high cholesterol levels.

He dieted and exercised, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, his doctor diagnosed him with hypertension brought on by stress.

“I just think it was because of the real estate lifestyle,” Mr Pasqualini says. “The driving, stressing out, eating off the cuff. So I’d drive to see a client, stop at McDonalds, grab a burger, come home hungry and then eat again.

“Now I’ve gotten out of real estate and started my own business. I’m relaxing a bit more, got back into some regular exercise and I’m watching what I eat.”

Robert Pasqualini says his “stressful” job as a real estate agent brought on his hypertension. Credit:Paul Jeffers

The Templestowe man says his blood pressure can flare up in the lead up to stressful events and periods, such as Christmas, but he has figured out what works for him to bring things back under control.

“I try to relax and meditate and not see it as a big issue. When I’m stressed out, I get moving – I get things done, rather than worry about it … then hopefully the pressure will stay down,” Mr Pasqualini says.

Experts agree with him. There are a number of ways people can deal with stress, including by practising mindfulness, doing yoga or even counting down from 100.

And try and find some time to unwind  – you don’t have to accept every single party invitation, Professor Macefield says.

“We’re encouraging people to listen to their body.”

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